Review: Antelope Audio Orion Studio Rev. 2017
Let yourself be captured by the promise of Orion’s great beyond… getting there might not be smooth, but it’s worth it.
Getting an Antelope Audio interface up and running is like reaching the Promised Land — it was everything you hoped it might be, but you have to wander through the wilderness to get there. This is the third time I’ve fought through Antelope’s installation hedge maze, and it hasn’t gotten any better in three years. It’s a shame, because once you find your way out the exit, the milk and honey flows in torrents.
Antelope has tried to mitigate the issues by uploading a few video walkthroughs and how-tos outlining the ‘simple’ procedure, but while I’m sure it works for some, we’ve never had a clean run.
In my case, when the initial — and automatic — firmware upgrade failed, it got stuck in Primary Boot mode, for which there’s no official solution other than plug it into another computer and try again. It’s exactly what I had to do, but having access to another computer should never have to be a solution. It’s bonkers.
When I thought I’d finally got it to update — after sticking to the provided USB cable, not Thunderbolt like the manual suggests — following the prescriptions of deleting all existing Core Audio preferences and doing a factory reset of the device, I could control the unit, but it wouldn’t pass any audio on the inputs, just playback via one headphone output. I tried different mics, different instruments, and nothing would show up on the unit’s meters, let alone on the control panel or in a DAW. After almost giving up, I found a forum post where one user had found that unplugging the unit, doing a factory reset, plugging it back in again, then unplugging it, restarting the computer and plugging it back in would get it going… that worked.
It reminds me of an old Presonus interface I used to own, that wouldn’t respond unless you booted everything up in exactly the right order. It sucked, and thankfully Presonus interfaces just work these days. I install a lot of review interfaces, and most, if not all, are simple to get going. A far cry from five years ago. Antelope is really dropping the ball here.
Antelope chocks up a lot of the failures that freeze the unit in the firmware update process as either USB or internet connection failures. In my experience, it’s usually a drop out during the download or authentication. Perhaps separating the firmware file download from the actual device update would help. I appreciate the effort to make the update one automatic single step, but if it’s a consistent point of failure, trying a more common approach could be prudent.
It’s an odd chink in the armour, because Antelope’s other software achievements — like its onboard DSP-driven FX — suggest nailing the installation would be a doddle.
MILK & HONEY
Once you get past the gate, a playground of features awaits. When you buy into Antelope’s Orion Studio series, not only do you get Antelope’s top notch conversion and clocking, you get 12 (four more than typical for this sort of interface) clean preamps, four DI inputs, two reamp outputs, a couple of headphone outputs, 16 line outputs, two pairs of monitor outputs, and plenty of digital I/O. Phew! On top of all that is Antelope’s real coup; onboard real-time DSP effects, given to users free of charge. Not to be sneezed at as some cheapo-sounding, limited function freebies. They’re all top quality and incredibly useful effects that just happen to be free.
When you add up all the value you’re getting, as much as I hate to say, it actually feels like it’s worth the pain. Installation bugbears aside, I can report that after a month using the unit as my main interface I haven’t had a problem since. It’s booted up and connected every time, even on different systems. It’s kept its settings intact, and the pain of the install has worn off. If I didn’t have to write about it, I dare say I would have forgotten about it by now.
On another note, Antelope has again showed it can do software well with the development of individual mobile apps for each of its interface lines. Getting the app up and running is the polar opposite of the interface installation rigamarole. After downloading it from the App Store, my iPhone automatically connected to the interface, presumably over wi-fi, and away I went. It gave me control over the entire front end as well as clock source, sample rates, and monitoring levels. It also didn’t drop out when my phone locked, it just kept right on trucking. Very impressive and great for the home recordist who is setting their own levels away from the computer, as it gives input level indications. It would also be a nice option to hand control of monitor mixes over to artists, but this is a pretty good start.
NEED TO KNOW
Antelope Audio Orion Studio Rev. 2017
There have been some minor changes with this 2017 revision of Antelope’s already silly-specced Orion Studio. The first is cosmetic, moving from a silver faceplate to ‘carbon’ grey. It’s a nice look, though I still wonder why it doesn’t have four rack-mounting holes. I get that two rack screws is fine for studio applications and installs, but I’ve seen the odd screw come loose in transit, and wouldn’t like to see my beautiful interface half bent just because it only had one screw left in.
Antelope’s conversion and clocking has always been a high point. Users love the sound of their devices, and for good reason. The Rev 2017 still keeps the mastering grade 129dB of dynamic range on the monitor outputs, and the very respectable 120dB on line outputs. However, it’s upped the dynamic range on the AD conversion to 124dB, beating out everything in its class.
There’s also apparently more DSP so you can have 32 compressor instances and 40 EQs open at the same time on the one chip. It’s a lot of instances; enough to cover a huge complement of inputs, if you’re expanding digitally.
While it kept me to four amp and cabinet combos — makes sense given there’s only four DI inputs on the unit — I could keep whacking on vintage EQs and compressors until I hit about 55 instances, give or take, depending on which models you use. It means you can run around four of the most processor intensive effects per channel, and up to eight if you’ve got the overhead, not bad.
NO PAD, NO PROBS
While some people don’t love the dark GUI, you can resize it, which is rarer than you might think. You can also undock the Routing, Mixer, Effects and Meters tabs if you have enough real estate. Just two-finger or right-click it, then close the window to dock it back in the main window again.
The gains are also now continuous from 0-65dB. When I reviewed the Zen Studio, the gain range started at 10dB without a pad. It was too sensitive for some mic/source combinations. There’s still no pad, but it’s not as important now. While I can’t be sure, it appears Antelope is cannily moving the 55dB gain range of its preamp around to do this. If you speedily swipe the gain control end to end, you’ll hear some audible clicks, but it’s not a problem in standard use. Line amp gain is -6 to 20dB, and Hi-Z gain is 0-40dB. Once again, Antelope has nutted out the details of its software nicely.
The preamps were quite honest sounding, and everything I recorded carried through to the mix and master stages. I didn’t feel like I was getting too harsh in the tops or missing low end. Adding AFX inserts while tracking was just more icing on the cake. You definitely have to know how to use each piece of kit, and simply getting distracted by the options and shiny lights isn’t going to help your results. By sticking to some more familiar pieces to start off with, I was able to not destroy my drum sounds. There were a couple of times I eagerly jumped on the RCA BA-6A and went too far, too quickly. As always, use your ears.
FEELING THE FX
So, what other secret sauce do you get amongst all those gratis onboard FPGA effects, or AFX for short? Antelope has been busy. There are 21 vintage EQs, including BAE-branded Neve emulations, API, Pultec and SSL strips, along with less common but famous options like Neumann W492 and PEVs, Helios Type 69, Studer, Harrison and Lang. All of them sound great after a month of use, though it’s going to take more time than that to settle on specific favourites. The Helios has a nice thick quality to it, the 1073 sounds a little more mid forward, the Lang transparent, all in minor degrees.
On the compression side you’ve got dbx 160VU and 903, blackface 1176 and silver face mono version of an 1178, Retro 176, Sta-level, Altec 436C, Summit 100A limiter and Gyraf Gyratec X. There are a few others like the Grove Hill Audio Liverpool, Fairchild 670 and a noise gate tool which are available on some units and not the Rev 2017 yet. The 1176 works as expected, the Altec has a nice crunch to it and you can get the RCA to be quite aggressively present.
It’s really handy having these tools on the tracking side. You can easily set some gentle EQ and compression to get you in the ballpark for a mix if you want to record it, or be more aggressive with effects in your monitors, but record a clean single. Alternatively, you can record both simultaneously and choose later, which is different to UAD’s ‘either/or’ workflow. That said, it’s simple to copy settings to UAD’s DAW plug-ins, eliminating the need for going back to its Console software.
On the guitar side, the options are equally diverse. The mainstays — Fender, Vox and Marshall — are all there, with a smattering of well-known and boutique models ranging from rock to metal tones. Once again, you don’t have to record the results, but there’s more than enough here for some quality monitoring simulations, and they’ll likely impress picky guitarists. There’s plenty of reason to record real amplifiers, but it’s becoming less imperative, these days.
You’re given the choice between blends of ribbons, dynamics, and a couple of condensers, the ability to move them around on the cone, plus a 45-degree mic and back of cabinet mic. Once you’ve dialled in tones, you can either save all your session information as a preset or individual channel AFX settings. I had to load both types from the session menu (for some reason the AFX channel Load button wouldn’t recognise the .as format), but it still works. If you’re just wanting to import a single channel’s setting, you simply select the channel you want your chain to appear on and, hey presto! You’re ready to go.
Word to the wise, the Delete All button is way too close to the navigation button for channel 1 of the AFX, and there’s no warning dialogue box to deter you. I accidentally hit it and lost 16 channels of AFX setups. You’ll definitely want to build signal chains and save some basic sessions, in case you lose them that quickly.
QUICK ALL ROUND TRIP
Latency isn’t really an issue with the Orion Studio. For one, the latency over Thunderbolt is very low, but also because its onboard FPGA effects and amp modelling emulations almost completely negate the need for monitoring with DAW plug-ins. If you just can’t get what you want out of the internal effects or reamp loop, then head to your DAW. In Ableton Live, at 48k, latency was barely noticeable. With a 32 sample buffer the roundtrip latency was 2.9ms. At 96k, that time was reduced to 1.48ms and not a problem at all. Obviously, all those numbers depend on the computer you’re running and low buffers combined with high sampling rates eat up resources quick. Not so with the internal FPGA effects and mixer, you can run it stacked to the gills and not notice any change in latency performance.
While Antelope’s real-time mixer even has a decent reverb onboard, it would be great to have a few delay options for singers. Wait a minute, there’s a trick for that. If you’ve got some spare guitar effects pedals lying around, getting a delay going is as easy as feeding your pedal chain via the reamp output and coming back into the interface via Hi-Z, then using it as an effects loop in your mixer. You can even use both reamp outputs for a stereo feed! It’s a great way of easily adding character to vocals with gear you already have on hand. The internal latency of the device is so minuscule that it was undetectable when singing or playing guitar through this double round trip setup.
Having the ability to easily incorporate existing gear into your mix is a win by anyone’s standards. You might be able to create something completely unique with that odd cheap fuzz pedal that a thousand instances of Decapitator never will.
DON’T BE PHASED
The other use of Orion Studio’s AFX is to insert them as ‘external’ insert effects in your DAW. Antelope hasn’t yet built plug-in versions of AFX, so plumbing them into your mix essentially works like a hardware patch. While it’s a super powerful way of getting 16 channels of DSP-driven, high quality effects in your mix, I found a few issues users should be aware of.
Typically, when setting up an insert, you would figure out the delay of a hardware insert — if there is any — and compensate in Pro Tools or similar with a milliseconds figure for your particular sample rate.
However, when I inserted AFX inserts on the track, it always came back into the session marginally ahead of the signal. I checked this by duplicating a track, sending one out to AFX, and back again, then flipping phase. The only way I could get it to null was by delaying the AFX-effected channel by a few samples, meaning it was in front of the original, with no way to use hardware delay compensation to account for it. The standard EQ processor is very fast, so it required more delay (27 samples) to cancel out; while running at 48k with a 256 sample buffer. When I instantiated an EQ, compressor, BAE 1084 and dbx 160 chain, it was a little slower and required 17 samples of delay to correct any phasing issues. Obviously it didn’t fully null, as the two emulations are designed to impart upfront character, but it was in time.
All that’s to say that if you want to duplicate tracks and put a DSP insert on one, you’ll want to run a test signal through it to ensure you’re not messing with the phase of your tracks. You won’t pick up the absolutely minimal latency shift if it’s a single instrument, but you will notice the phase shift if it’s a copy of the original track, on a parallel bus, or one channel in a multi-track drum setup.
If you couldn’t be bothered going through the process of timing all your specific signal chains, then I’d keep AFX insert effects use to single channel processing and stereo masters, and avoid using it on one channel of a multi-miked instrument like drums, or parallel buses.
However, opening up access to these effects in your mix is well worth the effort. I found it to be a powerful addition to my effects palette and didn’t run into any issues when using it over my instrument busses and master. The vintage compressors in particular were satisfying in the way you can push the output of them, saturating the signal ever so slightly to gain apparent level without killing your dynamics. They don’t breakdown under duress, and stacking an RCA into the Gyraf variable-mu compressor was a great combination of lively punch and controlled level that really helped solidify drums in the mix.
LEARNING THE VALUE OF PAIN
While I may have harped on about Antelope’s installation process, it’s one step in a process that has since proven very reliable. Antelope has obviously been listening to customer feedback; with changes to its user interface, preamp structure and heat dissipation. There’s always room for improvement, and it’s hard to criticise a company which is obviously doing its darnedest to provide outstanding value to its users. No doubt, Antelope has, and continues to, push the boundaries of the I/O complement, conversion quality and features you can expect for any given price point. If it continues to refine the user experience like it does specifications, then there’ll be no stopping its rise.
The Orion Studio Rev 2017 is a welcome refinement on an already great interface. It sounds great, it works well, there’s not much better for the price, and you get a huge bundle of top-class effects thrown in for nothing. While you might be deterred by the slight drawbacks, I daresay the benefits will be more convincing.